Tag Archives: Western Australia

In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed



S Wright, Author provided

Jonathan Benjamin, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, University of York; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, James Cook University

For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.

Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.

But in a study published today in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.

The great flood

When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.

Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.




Read more:
Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before


Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.

The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.

These ancient cultural landscapes do not end at the waterline – they continue into the blue, onto what was once dry land.
Jerem Leach, DHSC Project, Author provided

Landscapes under water

For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.

Location of the finds in northwest Australia (left) and the Dampier Archipelago (right).
Copernicus Sentinel Data and Geoscience Australia, Author provided

We studied navigation charts, geological maps and archaeological sites located on the land to narrow down prospective areas before surveying the seabed using laser scanners mounted on small planes and high-resolution sonar towed behind boats.

In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.

Archaeologists working in the shallow waters off Western Australia. Future generations of archaeologists must be willing to get wet!
Jerem Leach, DHSC Project, Author provided

We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.

The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.

A selection of stone artefacts found on the seabed during fieldwork.
John McCarthy and Chelsea Wiseman, Author provided

At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.

Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.

Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.




Read more:
Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.

A submerged stone tool associated with a freshwater spring now 14m under water.
Hiro Yoshida and Katarina Jerbić, DHSC Project, Author provided

Underwater archaeology matters

The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.

Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.

The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.

Archaeologist Chelsea Wiseman records a stone artefact covered in marine growth.
Sam Wright, DHSC Project, Author provided

Protecting a priceless submerged heritage

Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.

Protection of underwater cultural sites more than 100 years old is enshrined by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), adopted as law by more than 60 countries but not ratified by Australia.

In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.

This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.




Read more:
An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose


Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.

There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.

With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.

We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.The Conversation

Deep History of Sea Country: Investigating the seabed in Western Australia.

Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, Flinders University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of York; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Climate Geoscience, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Destruction of Juukan Gorge: we need to know the history of artefacts, but it is more important to keep them in place



Juukan Gorge photographed May 15.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Jacinta Koolmatrie, Flinders University

A day before Reconciliation Week and the day Australia was meant to be acknowledging and remembering the Stolen Generations, news came of something that seemed to put Australia back a few decades in their journey towards “Reconciliation”. Rio Tinto had detonated a 46,000 year old site known as Juukan Gorge.

This news was simply gut-wrenching.

Artefacts found at the site were among some of the oldest in Western Australia, making it incredibly significant not only for the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, but also for the history of this continent.




Read more:
Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


Also startling for many was this detonation had been in process for several years. The dating of the site to 46,000 years old had been uncovered through salvage excavation in preparation for this destruction.

I cannot speak for the Traditional Owners, nor can I speak on the complexities surrounding the approval of the blast, but the removal of artefacts from their place has impacted every single Aboriginal person on this continent. That is what I can speak on.

Salvage excavations

Salvage excavation is archaeological work conducted to record and collect all evidence of human occupation at a site that has been or will be impacted by development.

Excavation itself is destructive. The moment a trowel is inserted into the ground, the site has been destroyed. Salvage excavations, like all excavations, require this destruction to be worth it. Comprehensive recording of every aspect of an excavation is necessary, from changes in soil to recording each artefact found.

Archaeology also considers how artefacts will be cared for in the long term: where they will be kept and who will be caring for them. It is preferable for artefacts to remain at their location. In cases where this proves impossible, salvaging is required.

At a surface level, it seems unproblematic if everything was collected from the ground, analysed and placed in a box: those artefacts would be preserved for all of eternity. Now, they are no longer subject to erosion, animal activity or (the more perplexing argument) the threat of humans. But cultural institutions are not immune to disaster.

In 2019, Brazil’s national museum was devastated by a fire. This summer, Australian galleries closed due to the potential impact of smoke on collections. The South Australian Museum has repeatedly discussed the threat of water leaks to their collections.

These institutions are built to preserve heritage but they should not be viewed as the only preservation option, especially for heritage heavily intertwined with place.

Why is place important?

There is a common narrative Aboriginal people wandered this continent aimlessly. Rarely is there discussion our ancestors moved with intention, demonstrated clearly in the ways they passed down generational knowledge to us. Why else would they have mapped this land?




Read more:
It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge


Where they chose to leave their presence should be viewed as intentional and as representation of that significance.

This significance has flowed through time, strengthening the connection of this place to us. In cases where there is a physical presence of our ancestors, it is integral we maintain the connection of this physical history to place.

For many, Juukan Gorge was mainly significant because of its early date. But not all Aboriginal heritage is afforded this same interest. Not all of our heritage can be dated that early, and a lot of our heritage simply is not tangible. A vast majority of our heritage is found in our knowledge of the land that traverses this continent. Mostly, this heritage goes unseen by our colonisers, making it easily overlooked in favour of development.

Sometimes, the tangible heritage found in these places is the only thing standing in the way of destroying a place. It is the only thing demonstrating we are a people who have deep connections to this land. Not only from a spiritual side, but also from a linear western view of time.

Aboriginal knowledges of these places, and how this knowledge links to the archaeological record, is what can fully contextualise the meaning of these places for our ancestors – and for us today.

The importance of empathy

Maintaining the connection of place with our ancestors’ possessions found at these places may be solidified through the implementation of stricter laws. But if a company wants something and our heritage is standing in the way, those laws can always be bent. The value of destroying these places is much higher than the value of keeping them – at least in the eyes of our colonisers. A loophole will be found, and our communities will suffer and grieve another loss.

If we want something long lasting, something transcending laws, empathy needs to be much stronger, something embedded into the mind and heart. Not the type of empathy that emerges when one has to say “sorry”, but the type existing before “sorry” is even considered.

With empathy, how could you justify the hurt Aboriginal people on this continent experience when we find out another culturally significant place has been destroyed?The Conversation

Jacinta Koolmatrie, Lecturer in Archaeology, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


Juukan 1 and 2 in June, 2013.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

In the expansion of its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto blasted the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 – Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These sites had deep historical and cultural significance.

The shelters are the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.

The mining blast caused significant distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama traditional land owners. It’s an irretrievable loss for future generations.

Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance, and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.

But the destruction of a culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.

In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.

But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and a disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.

The destruction of a significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Not an isolated incident

The history of large developments destroying Indigenous heritage sites is, tragically, long.

A $2.1 billion light rail line in Sydney, completed last year, destroyed a site of considerable significance.

More than 2,400 stone artefacts were unearthed in a small excavated area. It indicated Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1830 to manufacture tools and implements from flint brought over to Australia on British ships.




Read more:
Four ways Western Australia can improve Aboriginal heritage management


Similarly, ancient rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project. The site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs) across 36,857 hectares.

This area is under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.

But a Senate inquiry revealed emissions from adjacent industrial activity may significantly damage it.

The West Australian government is seeking world heritage listing to try to increase protection, as the regulatory frameworks at the national and state level aren’t strong enough. Let’s explore why.

What do the laws say?

The recently renamed federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for listing new national heritage places, and regulating development actions in these areas.

At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides a legal framework for their management and protection. It is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing.




Read more:
Australia’s problem with Aboriginal World Heritage


But many ancient Aboriginal sites have no national heritage listing. For the recently destroyed Juurkan gorge, the true archaeological significance was uncovered after consent had been issued and there were no provisions to reverse or amend the decision once this new information was discovered.

Where a site has no national heritage listing, and federal legislation has no application, state laws apply.

For the rock shelters in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto was abiding by Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 – which is now nearly 50 years old.

Section 17 of that act makes it an offence to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter any Aboriginal site without the ministerial consent.

But, Section 18 allows an owner of the land – and this includes the holder of a mining licence – to apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee for consent to proceed with a development action likely to breach section 17.

The committee then evaluates the importance and significance of the site, and makes a recommendation to the minister. In this case, the minister allowed Rio Tinto to proceed with the destruction of the site.

No consultation with traditional owners

The biggest concern with this act is there’s no statutory requirement ensuring traditional owners be consulted.

This means traditional owners are left out of vital decisions regarding the management and protection of their cultural heritage. And it confers authority upon a committee that, in the words of a discussion paper, “lacks cultural authority”.




Read more:
Separate but unequal: the sad fate of Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia


There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee, nor is there a requirement that at least one anthropologist be on the committee. Worse still, there’s no right of appeal for traditional owners from a committee decision.

So, while the committee must adhere to procedural fairness and ensure traditional owners are given sufficient information about decisions, this doesn’t guarantee they have a right to consultation nor any right to provide feedback.

Weak in other jurisdictions

The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is under review. The proposed reforms seek to abolish the committee, ensuring future decisions on Aboriginal cultural heritage give appropriate regard to the views of the traditional Aboriginal owners.

NSW is the only state with no stand-alone Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, a similar regulatory framework to WA applies in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

There, if a developer is likely to impact cultural heritage, they must apply for an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit. The law requires “regard” to be given to the interests of Aboriginal owners of the land, but this vague provision does not mandate consultation.

What’s more, the burden of proving the significance of an Aboriginal object depends upon external statements of significance. But Aboriginal people, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area.

As in WA, the NSW regulatory framework is weak, opening up the risk for economic interests to be prioritised over damage to cultural heritage.

Outdated laws

The federal minister has discretion to assess whether state or territory laws are already effective.

If they decide state and territory laws are ineffective and a cultural place or object is under threat, then the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 can be used.

But this act is also weak. It was first implemented as an interim measure, intended to operate for two years. It has now been in operation for 36 years.




Read more:
Australian rock art is threatened by a lack of conservation


In fact, a 1995 report assessed the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

It recommended minimum standards be put in place. This included ensuring any assessment of Aboriginal cultural significance be made by a properly qualified body, with relevant experience.

It said the role of Aboriginal people should be appropriately recognised and statutorily endorsed. Whether an area or site had particular significance according to Aboriginal tradition should be regarded as a subjective issue, determined by an assessment of the degree of intensity of belief and feeling of Aboriginal people.

Twenty-five years later, this is yet to happen.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Murujuga Mermaid: how rock art in WA sheds light on historic encounters of Australian exploration



The Enderby Island ship image depicting His Majesty’s Cutter Mermaid, which visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project

Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Deakin University

It is understandable that Captain Cook is a trigger for debates about our national identity and history. However, we often risk being blinded by the legacy of Cook. Around the continent, early encounters with outsiders occurred on other days, and in other years before 1788. Across northern Australia these did not involve Europeans, but rather Southeast Asian trepangers.

The earliest documented European landfall was at Cape Keerweer, Cape York, in 1606 with the landing of the crew of the Dufyken. For coastal Aboriginal communities around Australia each moment of encounter was unique, significant and – in many instances – cataclysmic.

Image of ‘Boon-ga-ree’ by Phillip Parker King.
Phillip Parker King, album of drawings and engravings, 1802–1902, PXC 767, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The history of the exploration of Australia’s coast became a media story with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that a A$6.7 million replica of Cook’s Endeavour would be built to circumnavigate Australia. Of course, James Cook never circumnavigated Australia. This was done by Abel Tasman in 1642 (albeit at a great distance) and most effectively accomplished in 1803 by Matthew Flinders.

Flinders was accompanied by Boongaree, an Aboriginal man from Port Jackson, now remembered as an iconic Aboriginal go-between for his ability to move between the Indigenous and settler worlds.

Remarkably, Boongaree would circumnavigate Australia a second time in 1817-18, accompanying Phillip Parker King, a consummate explorer. King would captain four expeditions circumnavigating Australia and filled in many details on the map. He and his crew remain unsung heroes of exploration compared to Cook.

Phillip Parker King c.1817, by unknown artist.
ML 1318, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

During archaeological field recording in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), Western Australia, our team working with Murujuga Land and Sea Unit Rangers encountered an engraved depiction of a single-masted sailing ship. This image is on an elevated rock panel in an extensive Aboriginal engraving (petroglyph) site complex near a rocky water hole at the south-western end of Enderby Island.

We argue in a new paper that this image depicts His Majesty’s Cutter (HMC) Mermaid, the main vessel of the historically significant British Admiralty survey captained by King.

‘View of Mermaid Strait from Enderby Island (Rocky Head) Feb 25 [1818]’, in Phillip Parker King – album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902. Mitchell Library, PXC767.
Mitchell Library, PXC767.

The Mermaid visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818. It was not the first European vessel to visit – that was William Dampier in the HMS Roebuck in 1699. But King and his crew recorded encounters with Yaburara people. They observed fresh tracks and fires on the outer islands, and described how Yaburara people voyaged between islands on pegged log rafts.

Phillip Parker King, Native of Dampier’s Archipelago, on his floating log not dated, pen, ink and wash and scratching out on card, 7.9 x 11.5 cm (sheet). Transferred from the State Library Board of Western Australia, 2000.
Reproduced with permission of the Art Gallery of Western Australia

Murujuga is globally renowned as one of the world’s largest rock art estates. Our work has documented the tens of thousands of years of human occupation, the extraordinary production of rock art and the historical presence of American whalers.

The depiction of the boat on Enderby Island overlooks the bay where the Mermaid anchored two centuries ago. When they went ashore the crew observed Aboriginal camps, and the formidable rocky landscape. Boongaree went fishing, while the expedition’s botanical collector Allan Cunningham planted a peach pip near a fig tree. While there, it appears someone scratched the image of the Mermaid.

The Enderby Island ship image showing view across Mermaid Strait to the Intercourse Islands.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

A scratched technique

There are various surviving documents from the Mermaid expedition, such as log books, day books, journals, watercolours, and coastal views. Interestingly, in their writings, King, midshipman John Septimus Roe and Cunningham all neglect to mention the engravings, and they did not mention making this image of their ship. We are confident the ship was not made by Yaburara people, as the scratched technique used is very different to the surrounding Yaburara engravings.

A) line drawing (by Ken Mulvaney), b) The ship engraving, Enderby Island, c) King’s detailed section of the Mermaid (Phillip Parker King, ‘Album of drawings and engravings’, Mitchell Library, PXC767)
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

While our investigation suggests that a metal tool was not used to make the image, the imagery – which demonstrates detailed knowledge of the ship’s rigging and proportions, and the inclusions of water in this “sketch” of the craft, leads us to the conclusion that this ship was sketched on the day that the crew of the Mermaid visited this area.

So, who made the image? We really don’t know (but do have some ideas).

The artist clearly knew the ship in great detail. The similarities to the Mermaid are profound, allowing us to rule out other possible vessels to visit the islands in later years such as two-masted whaling barques and pearling ships.

Both King and Roe made many images in their records of the Mermaid – was this one of theirs? Perhaps another unnamed crew member got involved. Perhaps Boongaree was impressed by the extensive rock art legacy that he encountered. Being from Sydney with a similarly rich rock art heritage – which includes the depiction of post-contact sailing ships – perhaps he depicted what was by then utterly familiar to him – a tiny sailing ship on a voyage across the unknown seas.

Whoever’s hand, if this is the Mermaid, as we argue, this new finding is of nautical and historical significance to Australia and Britain as well as being significant to the Aboriginal people of the west Pilbara.

Significant timing

The timing of King’s visit is significant. He was there for eight days in February and March, a time when monsoonal rainfall rejuvenates the rock pools on the outer islands and when turtles were hatching: a seasonal pulse in Yaburara island life.

During that week the crew of the Mermaid described their contact with family groups that were camped on several of the inner islands, as well as the widespread evidence for outer island use. Their encounters with people included the observations of their unique water craft, camps and a range of subsistence activities. One Yaburara man was kidnapped from his mangrove raft, and taken on board the Mermaid where Boongaree tried to reassure him by removing his own shirt to reveal his body marking and black skin. The visitors offered the Yaburara man glass beads, which he rejected.

King’s voyages of discovery left behind other marks along the West Australian coastline. At Careening Bay in the Kimberley in 1820, King had the name of the Mermaid carved into a boab tree, where it can still be found today. At Shark Bay, King had a post erected with “KING” spelt out in iron nails – today this is in the WA Museum.

Mermaid Tree, Careening Bay
Courtesy: Kevin Kenneally

Collections from the Archipelago included plants and stone artefacts still held in the British Natural History Museum. King’s daily journal helped him create his official account, published as two volumes in 1826 titled Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia.

There was no marked national commemoration in 2017 of the 200-year anniversary of the start of King’s voyages. However, as Murujuga’s nomination to the World Heritage Tentative Listing proceeds, this new evidence adds further significance to the Mermaid’s brief encounters with the Yaburara.

It provides new insight to King’s Expedition around this continent’s seascape as well as adding to the deep-time record of Murujuga’s Aboriginal history – and place-making inscribed on this landscape.The Conversation

Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Senior Lecturer in History, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The story of Australia’s last convicts



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Swan River Colony.
Jane Eliza, Currie Panorama of the Swan River Settlement via Wikimedia Commons

Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool and Lucy Williams, University of Liverpool

The Hougoumont, the last ship to take convicts from the UK to Australia, docked in Fremantle, Western Australia, on January 9, 1868 – 150 years ago. It brought an end to a process which deposited about 168,000 convicted prisoners in Australia after it began in 1788.

Convicts had ceased to be sent to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) decades earlier, but Western Australia still wanted convict labour to help with building projects. By the time the Hougoumont landed its shipment of 281 convicts, the Swan River penal colony in Western Australia had been reliant on convict labour for 18 years, and received almost 10,000 male prisoners from Britain.

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The convict system may have ended with the arrival of the final convicts on the Hougoumont and the disbandment of Australia’s penal settlements, but the people who were its legacy lived on. Some prisoners achieved a kind of celebrity status. Mary Reibey, who was transported to Sydney, became a successful businesswoman and charitable benefactor, and is commemorated on the Australian $20 note.

In Western Australia some of Britain’s “bad” men made also “good”. Alfred Chopin, transported for receiving stolen goods, became a famed and sought-after photographer. Embezzler John Rowland Jones became a reporter for the Western Australian government, and later editor of the West Australian newspaper. Their stories are extraordinary, but they have been used to present a generally favourable narrative which contrasts their heroism against the long-established stain that supposedly blighted those generations of Australians descended from convicts.

It is easy to find thousands of ex-convicts who left crime behind and forged new, ordinary, lives in Australia. Yet, while some ex-convicts became pillars of their communities, got married, and became much-loved and valued friends and neighbours, others struggled.

Our ongoing research shows that the impact of transportation could last a lifetime for those in Western Australia. Many convicts were left struggling with unemployment, personal relationships, and alcoholism, and drifted through both life and the colony. Many re-offended for decades after they were freed in Australia, but only committed low-level nuisance and public order offences – mainly drunkenness and vagrancy – rather than the more serious crimes for which they were initially transported.

Fremantle Harbour in 1899.
Nixon & Merrilees via Wikipedia

The Western Australian records we’ve been using for our recent research and digitised for the Digital Panopticon project reveal the story of Samuel Speed, the last living Australian convict. He was transported to Western Australia in 1866 and died in 1938, just short of his 100th birthday.

Speed’s story

Samuel Speed.
The Mirror (Perth), 1938.

Speed was born in Birmingham, England in 1841. He had one brother and one sister, but little else about his family or early life is known. He was in his early twenties when he was tried in Oxfordshire in 1863 for setting fire to a haystack. Homeless and begging for food, he had committed arson in order to get arrested and spend some time in a warm cell. He was sentenced to seven years of convict transportation to Australia.

Speed was conditionally released in 1869 and was allowed to live outside of the prison walls and undertake employment, provided he did not commit any further offences. He found work as a general servant in Western Australia and was finally granted his certificate of freedom two years later. He went on to help build bridges across the vast Swan River, and spent the rest of his working life at various companies around the state. He was never re-convicted of any offence and went on to live a perfectly ordinary and law-abiding life, only coming to the attention of the papers a few months before his death.

By that time, old and frail, and dependent on the care of attendants, Speed’s memories of transportation were faded. Among the few recollections of his former life he remembered that:

Among those unfortunates transported … were men of every walk of life; doctors, lawyers, shirt-soiled gentlemen, and social outcasts tipped together in the hothouse of humanity that was the Swan River Colony.

A kind of rehabilitation

Speed lived long enough to see his former penal settlement become part of the federated commonwealth of Australia. He witnessed the death of an old archaic system, and the birth of a new and confident Australian nation.

To the early 20th-century press, his life was a gratifying confirmation that they system had worked. Western Australia had taken corrupt British convicts and turned them into productive members of society. The report of his death in Perth’s Sunday Times confidently asserted that Speed’s conduct was all that a reputable citizen should aspire to.

He was not by any means the only ex-convict who stayed out of trouble, however, as our research is showing, his behaviour was far better than most of his fellow ex-convicts. It was also better than the rumoured conduct of free settlers who flooded into Western Australia after gold was discovered in the 1880s and 1890s.

Our preliminary research is showing that about 80% of men who arrived on the last convict ship (discounting 67 Irish political prisoners) committed either a regulatory infraction such as absconding, possession of contraband or violent conduct, or a criminal offence during their time under sentence. Given the number of convicts who re-roffended both during and after their sentence, it’s better to think of the transportation system as encouraging enough reform for society to progress. The convicts as a cohort may not all have rehabilitated, but few committed serious offences after they were transported.

The ConversationAs for Speed, he died in Perth’s Old Men’s Home in 1938. Seventy years after the last British convict ship arrived in Australia, the convict period had finally ended.

Barry Godfrey, Professor of Social Justice, University of Liverpool and Lucy Williams, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Liverpool, England, U.K., University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Oral testimony of an Aboriginal massacre now supported by scientific evidence



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A cross was erected during the 1996 remembering ceremony of the Sturt Creek massacre.
Pam Smith, Author provided

Pamela Smith, Flinders University and Keryn Walshe, South Australian Museum

For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.

Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.

But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.


Read more: DNA reveals a new history of the First Australians


We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.

The Sturt Creek Massacre: the full undated painting by artists Launa Yoomarri and Daisy Kungah under direction of Clancy and Speiler Sturt. The Aboriginal prisoners are chained between two trees. The four figures (two left and two right) hold guns. The footsteps end at the well and goat yard, and both contain fragmented bone. The white line and black stones on either side of the creek, Sturt Creek, represent the ‘milky’ coloured water of Sturt Creek and the black stone along the banks are what Daisy Kungah described as purrkuji, the jupilkarn (cormorants) in the dreamtime.
Kuningarra School, Billiluna Aboriginal Community, Western Australia., Author provided

The massacre at Sturt Creek

Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.

This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.

Map showing the location of Sturt Creek Station and the study area on Sturt Creek, southeast Kimberley Region, Western Australia.
Robert Keane, Spatial Systems Analyst, Flinders University, Author provided

It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.

These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.

Dr Keryn Walshe (right) talking to members of the descent group at the massacre site.
Pam Smith, Author provided

We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.

Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.

The search for evidence

Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.

The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.

But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.

One of ten scrapes made in the dry stone wall enclosure. Scrapes into the loose top soil revealed burnt bone, all highly fragmented and embedded in burnt soil.
Pam Smith

Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.

Bone fragment No 2 from the Sturt Creek site.
Author provided

Proving that the bones were of human origin, based on the few samples our team was permitted to collect, was challenging. Two bone fragments from a human skull were identified; the challenge then was to identify evidence of an intense fire.

This evidence was provided through X-ray diffraction analyses that determined the temperatures at which the fire burnt and the length of time.

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Maintaining a fire of such high temperatures over many hours using timber as fuel must have involved human intervention and an intention to destroy the bones beyond recognition.

This was not a traditional hearth fire, as later experiments demonstrated, nor were Indigenous artefacts or cultural material found.

An objective of our study was to demonstrate that scientific research at massacre sites can verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people. We believe this was achieved at Sturt Creek.

Recognition of a massacre

Many people, both Aboriginal and white, lost their lives on the Australian frontier, but in most documented massacres it was Aboriginal people who were killed.

Scholars of Australian frontier history have argued the deaths of Aboriginal people should be acknowledged without political prejudice as grave injustices. Others have argued the many reported massacre events in Australia were fabricated.


Read more: Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago


This debate is now known as the “History Wars”, and are generally views expressed by non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, particularly the descendants of those killed, still bear the pain of these past conflicts.

Memorial erected at the Sturt Creek massacre site by the descendants in 2011.
John Griffiths, Author provided

They know that grandparents, aunts and uncles were absent when they were children, and deep sorrow took their place. The descendants are also the custodians of the oral testimonies recording these events.

We believe our research confronts a significant cultural boundary that – apologies aside – political leaders have failed to address. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.

Of all outcomes from this project, an email from a resident of the Balgo community gave the most hope for the future. The correspondent concluded by saying thank you for “contributing to bringing some closure to my friends”.

The ConversationWe ask little more than for archaeologists and scientists working with Aboriginal descent groups to achieve a level of closure, no matter how small, for the descendants of this and similar places of atrocities committed on the Australian frontier.

Pamela Smith, Senior Research Fellow, adjunct, Flinders University and Keryn Walshe, Research Scientist in Archaeology, South Australian Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Picturing the unimaginable: a new look at the wreck of the Batavia



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Paul Uhlmann, Batavia 4th June 1629 (night of my sickness), 2017, oil on canvas (detail, one of three panels).
Courtesy of the artist

Arvi Wattel, University of Western Australia

Before dawn on the morning of June 4 1629, the Batavia, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, struck a reef at the Abrolhos Islands, some 70 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. More than seven months earlier the ship had left the Netherlands to make its way to the city of Batavia (present-day Jakarta), carrying silver, gold and jewels and 341 passengers and crew. During the shipwreck, 40 of them drowned. The others found safety on a nearby island.

Since there was no fresh water on the island they would name Batavia’s Graveyard (now Beacon Island), Commander Pelsaert and about 45 others took a longboat in search of water on the mainland. Unsuccessful in his search, Pelsaert decided to sail on to the city of Batavia to get help. By the time he returned in mid-September, the followers of Jeronimus Cornelisz, the man he had left in charge, had murdered 115 men, women and children.

It was not just the extent of the killings that shocked Pelsaert, but also their sheer cruelty: victims had been repeatedly stabbed, had their throats slit with blunt knifes, or their heads split with an axe. In his account of the events, Pelsaert tried to comprehend what had happened. No Christian man could ever have done this. It had to be the work of the devil.

Ongeluckige Voyagie, Van t Schip Batavia, nae Oost-Indien. State Library of Western Australia.
State Library of Western Australia

Mutiny, shipwreck, treasures, brutal murders and a “happy” ending for the 116 people who survived: it all sounds like the script for a Hollywood movie. No wonder then that Russell Crowe has bought the rights to Hugh Edwards’s novel Island of Angry Ghosts, which recounts the shipwreck and its rediscovery in 1963. The Batavia’s tragic tale has inspired novels, a stage play, songs, an opera, a musical and radio dramas, and is now the subject of an exhibition combining art and science at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia.

Retelling the Batavia horrors

Within a few months of the shipwreck, the first short accounts appeared in print in the Netherlands. In 1647 these were followed by the publication of Pelsaert’s notes under the title Ongeluckige Voyagie, Van ‘t Schip Batavia.
Unsurprisingly, Pelsaert’s sensational eyewitness account proved a considerable success. It was republished several times over the following decades.

Beacon Island in the Abrolhos Islands, site of the Batavia wreck.
Guy de la Bedoyere/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The gruesome Abrolhos murders somewhat faded from view during the 18th and early 19th centuries. But by the 1890s they had re-entered the public imagination, not least because Perth’s Western Mail chose, somewhat curiously, its Christmas issue (1897) to publish a full English translation of Pelsaert’s account.

Since then there have been numerous novels and retellings of the tale. Bruce Beresford directed a 1973 TV movie. Many stories have been accompanied by illustrations. But the wreck has provoked surprisingly little response from visual artists.

Meditating on mortality

In the new exhibition, two Perth-based artists, Robert Cleworth and Paul Uhlmann, collaborated with a team of archaeologists from the University of Western Australia, who recently excavated several new burials of the murder victims on Beacon Island. The exhibition features a presentation of these recent digs and projections of the grave sites alongside works by Cleworth and Uhlmann. By referencing skeletons and skulls, the two artists create new forms of contemporary memento mori, or artworks that remind us we all must die.

Paul Uhlmann, Batavia 4th June 1629 (night of my sickness), 2017, oil on canvas (detail, one of three panels).
Courtesy of the artist

Much of the work on display is inspired by the art and life of Johannes Torrentius, a Dutch painter convicted in 1628 for his alleged blasphemy, heresy and Satanism. Although not aboard the Batavia, Torrentius was widely believed to have inspired Cornelisz in his gruesome deeds.

Besides his heretical statements on religion, Torrentius had offended Dutch Calvinists with a number of bawdy pictures. All of these transgressive works were destroyed, yet titles such as A Woman Pissing in a Man’s Ear give some indication of their subject matter.

Ironically, the only Torrentius painting to have survived is an allegorical still life that warns against immoderate behaviour. During his lifetime, the painter would have created numerous vanitas paintings, works that address life’s vanities, assisted by a camera obscura, a darkened box in which a lens projects an external image – a forerunner to our modern cameras.

Paul Uhlmann, Batavia skull (camera obscura I), 2015, photo print on aluminium.
Courtesy of the artist.

Uhlmann has used the same device to create a triptych of photo prints that show the skull of one of the Batavia murder victims from three different angles. The skull, recovered in 1964, was missing a small bone fragment, the result of a blow to the head. This fragment was unearthed during the latest excavations. Uhlmann has used both the skill and the fragment in his study to demonstrate the impermanence of life and the transience of the skull.

Skulls also feature prominently in the paintings on display by Cleworth, and not just skulls of humans but also that of a wallaby. The skull testifies to the hunger and hardship of the victims: wallabies were not indigenous to Beacon Island and must have been brought there by the shipwreck survivors. This is another example of how art and science are brought together in this show.

Robert Cleworth, memento mori – two hands, 2017, oil on panel.
Courtesy of the artist

A second painting by Cleworth shows two hands hovering in front of a deep-blue background. The broad brushstrokes evoke the sea surrounding the islands. The hands are those of the lead mutineer, Cornelisz.

Somewhat ironically, no one died by these hands during the reign of terror. Cornelisz had ordered his cronies to kill, rather than committing the murders himself. Nevertheless, when Pelsaert returned to Batavia’s Graveyard and immediately dispensed justice, he ordered Cornelisz’s hands be chopped off before he was hanged on the gallows.

These artworks don’t simply retell the story of the Batavia and its cruel aftermath. They explore the nexus of art and science, using processes similar to those of the 17th century. They not only offer reflections on the unimaginable cruelty that took place four centuries ago, but provoke a new reading of past events.


The ConversationBatavia: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until December 9 2017.

Arvi Wattel, Lecturer, UWA School of Design, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Cave dig shows the earliest Australians enjoyed a coastal lifestyle



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Three main excavation squares within Boodie Cave.
Peter Veth, Author provided

Sean Ulm, James Cook University; Ingrid Ward, Flinders University; Peter Veth, University of Western Australia, and Tiina Manne, The University of Queensland

Archaeological excavations in a remote island cave off northwest Australia reveal incredible details of the early use by people of the continent’s now-submerged coast. The Conversation

Out latest study reveals that at lower sea levels, this island was used as a hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, and then as a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.

As the dates for the first Aboriginal arrival in Australia are pushed back further and further, it is becoming clear how innovative the original colonists must have been.

The earliest known archaeological sites so far reported are found in inland Australia, such as Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges and Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land. These places are a long way from the sea, and were once even more so when past sea levels were lower and the coast even more distant.

But we do know that the earliest Australians were originally seafarers. They came from island southeast Asia and no matter which route they followed had to make sea crossings of up to 90km to get here.

The earliest landfall on the continent is now likely to be at least 50m below the present ocean. Until now we have known very little about these first coastal peoples.

Our research, published this week in Quaternary Science Reviews, begins to fill in some of these gaps.

Island dig

For the past five years an international team of 30 scientists has been working in collaboration with the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation and Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation on Boodie Cave, a deep limestone cave on the remote Barrow Island, off the Western Australia coast.

Since the initial early dates for Boodie Cave were reported in 2015, our team has been forensically analysing the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains, as well as re-dating the site to build up a robust picture of the lives of the people who lived here.

PhD student Fiona Hook at the Boodie Cave excavation.
Kane Ditchfield

The results from radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques from four independent dating laboratories show that Boodie Cave was first occupied between 51,100 and 46,200 years ago.

These dates make Boodie Cave one of the earliest known locations in the settlement of Australia and the earliest site anywhere near the coast.

Project leader Peter Veth discusses the significance of the Boodie Cave discoveries.

Mainland connection

When Boodie Cave was first occupied, Barrow Island was part of the mainland, with the shoreline between 10km and 20km further west.

The shoreline became even more distant as the planet moved into an ice age and sea levels dropped to 125m below present, around 20,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter global temperatures warmed and, as the ice melted, sea levels rose quickly.

Throughout this long period people returned again and again to Boodie Cave. The limestone that forms the cave provides ideal conditions for preservation, giving us incredible details about the people who lived there.

The cave contains one of Australia’s longest dietary records. These animal remains provide us with profound insights into what people were hunting and collecting from initial settlement onwards, and how they adapted to a new and ever-changing arid landscape.

PhD students Jane Skippington and Kane Ditchfield sorting material excavated from Boodie Cave.
Bob Sheppard

Besides wallabies, kangaroos and other terrestrial animals, the archaeological deposits contain marine shells transported from the distant coast.

In the deepest levels, when the shoreline was 20km or so distant, there are only four different types of shellfish that we have directly radiocarbon dated to 42,300 years ago. These shells represent the first direct evidence of marine resource use in Australia, and some of the earliest in our region.

Marine shell dating up to 40,000 years ago was excavated from Boodie Cave, including this baler shell artefact dating to around 6,800 years ago.
Fiona Hook

With rising sea levels the coastline came closer to the cave and the number and variety of marine resources increased exponentially.

By 8,000 years ago, there are 40 different types of marine shells as well as exceptionally well-preserved remains of sea urchin, mud crab, reef fish, marine turtle, marine mammal and a variety of small and medium-sized terrestrial animals.

By 6,800 years ago the cave and the whole island was abandoned as rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.

Hunting shelter

We argue that Boodie Cave was used as an inland hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago before becoming a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.

Dietary remains in addition to shell artefacts, incised shells, shell beads and thousands of stone artefacts show that Boodie Cave was a frequently visited location on the landscape.

Boodie Cave is located on the second bluff in the centre of the photograph.
Kane Ditchfield

Our study clearly shows that not only were Aboriginal people continuing to use marine resources across a period of dramatic environmental change, but they were also exploiting a range of desert resources. This demonstrates a successful adaptation to both the coasts and deserts of northern Australia.

Recent genetic studies suggest that colonisation was coastal, with people rapidly moving around the east and west coasts of Australia before meeting up in modern South Australia.

But the coasts along which the earliest Australians traversed were very different to today’s, not only in terms of ecology but also in distance. In some places the earlier coastline would have been hundreds of kilometres from its present position.

Peter Veth (left) with Thalanyi elders Anne Hayes, Roslyn Davison and Jane Hyland at Boodie Cave on Barrow Island.
Peter Veth

Sea levels rise

Over the past 20,000 years sea level has risen 125m, submerging the continental shelves surrounding Australia and separating the mainland from New Guinea and Tasmania.

Our findings provide a unique window into the now-drowned Northwest Shelf of Australia.

Lead archaeologist Peter Veth excavating a rich layer of dietary remains and artefacts below the surface of Boodie Cave.
Kane Ditchfield

Boodie Cave provides the earliest evidence for coastal living in Australia and gives us an indication that coastal resources have been important to people since initial colonisation.

Nearly one-third of Australia’s landmass was drowned after the last ice age and along with it evidence for coastal use by some of the earliest Australians.

Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded on the continental shelves of Europe, Asia and the Americas, but no submerged prehistoric sites have been reported anywhere off Australia.

These submerged landscapes of Australia open up an entirely new frontier of archaeological research and will shed even further light on the lives of the first people to arrive on Australian shores.

Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University; Ingrid Ward, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow on the ARC DP Deep History of Sea Country project administered by Flinders University, Flinders University; Peter Veth, Professor of Archaeology, University of Western Australia, and Tiina Manne, ARC DECRA Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Dirk Hartog’s Plate Back in Australia… For Now


The link below is to an article reporting on the arrival of Dirk Hartog’s plate in Australia for a limited time in Western Australia.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/aug/31/hartog-dish-oldest-european-object-left-in-australia-returns-after-400-years


Article: Australia – The Mistake Creek Massacre


The link below is to an article that takes a fresh look at the Mistake Creek Massacre that occurred in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1915.

For more visit:
http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/what-became-of-the-mistake-creek-massacre/651/


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